Georgia Southern Eagles 2016 Preview and Prediction

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#81 Georgia Southern Eagles

NATIONAL FORECAST

#81

Sun Belt PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Tyson Summers, First year | OFF. COORDINATOR: David Dean, Rance Gillespie | DEF. COORDINATOR: Lorenzo Costantini

Georgia Southern had long been a power at the FCS level. Now, the Eagles are about to find out if they can stay among the elite teams in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern went 9-3 in 2014 and followed that with another nine-win season and the program’s first bowl berth in 2015. That was enough for coach Willie Fritz to leave for Tulane. The Eagles replace Fritz with Tyson Summers, a familiar face around the state but a first-time head coach.

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Previewing Georgia Southern’s Offense for 2016
 

Summers inherits a program with two experienced quarterbacks, arguably the best running back in the league and an identity tied to its success utilizing the option. But Summers, the former defensive coordinator at Colorado State and UCF, makes no bones about wanting the Eagles to throw the ball better. 

“I think it will still be what we call the spread-option offense and will look similar to what it’s looked like in the past, but we’ll try to do a better job of developing our players in the passing game,” Summers says. “I think we have two quarterbacks capable of that.” 

Seniors Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw have grown accustomed to splitting time, and Summers doesn’t see that changing. Given the injury risk with quarterbacks who ran the ball a combined 194 times, it’s a necessity. But the Eagles attempted just 137 passes last season, completing 43 percent with 10 interceptions. It’s unclear how much more Summers wants to throw the ball, but it’s a fine line between trying to expand the offense and getting away from what works best. 

Georgia Southern will still need production from its deep stable of running backs. Senior Matt Breida returns as one of the Sun Belt’s most explosive players after averaging a staggering 7.9 yards per carry, and the next wave of options includes L.A. Ramsby and Wesley Fields, who combined for 1,498 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.

Related: Athlon's 2016 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Defense for 2016

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Summers has predominantly utilized a 4-3 alignment in his previous stops, and he’s got a wealth of talent returning in the front seven to help him get off to a good start in Statesboro. Georgia Southern ranked second in the league in total defense last season and allowed only 23.5 points per game, and there are plenty of pieces in place to help match that production this season. 

The Eagles return all six players who were in the regular defensive line rotation and four experienced linebackers, including 5'10" senior Ironhead Gallon, whom Summers has identified as the leader of the defense. Florida State transfer Ukeme Eligwe also has a chance to make an instant impact at linebacker. 

The biggest concern will be in the secondary, where the Eagles essentially have to replace everyone of consequence. To help soften the blow, they moved former quarterback Vegas Harley to safety in the spring and will hope he has enough time to acclimate to the other side of the ball. 

“He is one of our more talented players,” Summers says. 

Previewing Georgia Southern’s Specialists for 2016
 

The Eagles used two placekickers last season, but with Alex Hanks graduating the bulk of those duties will fall to senior Younghoe Koo, a former kickoff specialist who made 7-of-9 field goals in 2015, including a 48-yarder at Georgia. Matt Flynn has been the backup punter the last two seasons but showed some promise in limited appearances. Kick return duties are wide open following the graduation of All-Sun Belt return specialist Derek Keaton. 

Final Analysis
 

As long as the 36-year-old Summers leaves the door open to a philosophy shift away from the option, it will raise some concerns with fans who remember the disastrous Brian VanGorder experiment a decade ago. But given the amount of explosive talent on offense, the experience at quarterback and the winning culture established by predecessor Willie Fritz, it’s hard to envision the Eagles slipping from the ranks of Sun Belt contenders any time soon.

 “You don’t have a program like this with the sustained success it’s had without there being fantastic leadership,” says Summers, who grew up 150 miles away in Tifton, Ga. “I think that’s a big part of why it’s continued to be successful.”